A finless porpoise is taken for a physical examination in Jiangxi province. The species has been classified as "critically endangered". (Photo provided to China Daily)
Recent research may provide good news about the endangered species.
The rate of decline in the number of finless porpoises in the Yangtze River may have slowed in the past six years, according to experts in the field.
Wang Ding, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Hydrobiology, said official statistics will not be released until March, but recent research may indicate positive steps in the conservation of the species, which is classified as "critically endangered" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
However, the river's environment is still deteriorating as a result of overexploitation of natural resources, while waterway regulations and water-related construction projects pose great threats to the porpoise's natural habitat, Wang said.
His comments came at the end of a scientific survey of the porpoise that was launched in Wuhan, Hubei province, on Nov 11.
The survey, conducted by CAS, reviewed the status of the species in the Yangtze River, its major tributaries and two lakes called Dongting and Poyang.
Financed by the World Wide Fund for Nature and charities in Hubei, the 40-day survey covered 3,400 kilometers of water, from Wuchang, Hubei, to Shanghai.
In 2006, a survey found that there were 1,800 finless porpoises in the wild. However, the number had fallen to 1,405 by 2012, indicating an annual rate of decline of 13.7 percent.
The number is now estimated to be less than 1,000, and the ministry placed the species under the highest level of State protection in May. (China Daily)
The finless porpoise, a member of the toothed whale family, is so named because it lacks a true dorsal fin. Females produce a calf once every two years, and have a gestation period of 10 to 11 months. The species makes both high-and low-frequency tones and uses ultrasound to communicate.
Sometimes known as "river pigs", the species is also called the "smiling angel" because its round face and steep forehead give the impression of a smile.
The porpoise lives on eels, bass, whitebait, shrimps and aquatic plants, according to location. However, its existence is threatened by a lack of food as a result of illegal fishing, sand excavation and wetland development.
So far this year, 21 porpoises have been found dead along the course of the river.
"We have already lost the Baiji (a type of dolphin), which was declared functionally extinct in 2007. Only 10 years later, the population of finless porpoise has fallen at startling speed," said Li Yanliang, director of the National Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Association.
"The porpoise is the only freshwater mammal in the Yangtze River, but it is in critical condition and greatly affected by human activities."
His words were echoed by Zhang Li, secretary-general of the SEE Foundation, a charity organized by entrepreneurs: "The decrease in the population is the result of excessive shipping, industrial pollution and the overexploitation of natural resources. It's not only a disaster for the species, but also for the Yangtze River's ecosystem."
The mammal, which sits at the apex of an "aquatic pyramid", is a key indicator of the river's ecological health. "If the porpoise becomes extinct, many other forms of life in the water will follow, and the river's ecosystem will be severely damaged," Wang, the researcher, said.
The government has used three methods to protect the porpoise: on-and off-site conservation and captive breeding. On-site conservation seeks to protect the species in its natural habitat, while offsite relies on reconstruction of original habitats in new locations.
In 2015 and 2016, on-site conservation work was undertaken in Hewangmiao, Hubei, and Anqing, Anhui province. Off-site work was first jointly undertaken by the ministry and the hydrobiology institute in the 1990s, when five finless porpoises were transferred to the Tian'ezhou Milu Nature Reserve in Shishou, Hubei.
In 2016, the ministry published The Plan for Saving the Finless Porpoise (2016-25), which focuses on both on-and off-site protection efforts and genetic conservation, and stresses the importance of the assistance of social organizations, such as charities.
In June, the National Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Association launched the Save the Yangtze Finless Porpoise Alliance in Wuhan, which includes more than 60 member organizations nationwide.
"The founding of the alliance was a milestone in the engagement of social organizations in the conservation of this precious species," said the alliance's chairman Li Yanliang, who is also head of the Yangtze Fishery Administration Office.
The alliance encourages ex-fishermen to become "porpoise guardians" and help fishery administrators crack down on illegal fishing and sand excavation.
"Protection work isn't limited to the government or charities; it's everyone's mission," said Zhang, of the SEE Foundation.
Last year, the foundation's centers in Hunan and Anhui launched a project called Save the Smiling Angel of the Yangtze River, which is operated by the Changjiang Conservation Foundation in Hubei.
"Porpoise conservation is not easy work," Zhang said.
"As our foundation is an association of businesspeople, we have a large number of social resources and are more capable of channeling our resources into conservation work."
The foundation's annual fundraising day on Sept 9 netted 13 million yuan ($2 million), far outstripping the 3 million yuan it raised last year.
Meanwhile, in June, four pioneer protection sites were established at Poyang Lake and Yueyang in Hunan, plus Anqing and Hewangmiao.
The sites were a joint effort by the Ministry of Agriculture, the National Aquatic Wildlife Conservation Association, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Save the Yangtze Finless Porpoise Alliance.
In July, 40 porpoise guardians - including 30 former fishermen - were recruited at the four sites to patrol 719 square kilometers of water and protect 380 porpoises. Next year, a further 1,000 guardians will be recruited.
"They are of great help in our work," said Li Feng, deputy director of the Yueyang Fishery Administration. "Most of them used to be fishermen, so they know all about the water and fishing activities. That helps to prevent illegal fishing."
Yang Tianxi, a 49-year-old ex-fisherman, became a guardian in July, following a tough selection procedure that lasted two months.
"I earn 3,000 yuan per month, much less than I earned before. But I love the job because I can see and protect the porpoises every day; they are like old friends. Friends should protect each other," he said. (China Daily)
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